In a series of official emails obtained by Must Read Alaska, Anchorage Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar has made attempts to circumvent the Mayor’s Office and get advanced copies of deliberative budget documents by going directly to department heads in the Anchorage municipality. It appears to be a violation of the separation of powers between the executive branch and the legislative branch of the city.
After a series of attempts at getting deliberative budget documents, Dunbar was stopped in his tracks by the Bronson Administration, which asserted a separations of power right to not release its budget deliberations to someone who is clearly in another branch of the government. Dunbar ran for mayor during the past election and lost to Mayor Dave Bronson.
In a memo to department heads earlier this month, Municipal Manager Amy Demboski on Sept. 1 put an end to that practice:
“After evaluation of existing department workloads, projects, and services the Municipality of Anchorage provides, I have noticed numerous departments are strained with Assembly member inquiries and multiple requests for new projects, as well as requests from Assembly members to gain access to privileged deliberative process documents, which are being sent directly to departments from individual Assembly members,” Demboski wrote.
“It appears over the past few years the lines between the Assembly and Administration have been blurred, so it is now appropriate to highlight that the Municipality’s executive and administrative power is vested with the Mayor. The Municipality’s legislative power is vested in the Assembly. Constitutional principles of separation of powers – and checks and balances — enables the Mayor, as the chief executive, to receive candid advice, recommendations, and opinions from directors that are exempt from public records requests, at least during deliberations and discussion. The purpose of this privilege is to protect the mental processes of government decisionmakers from interference,” she continued.
Demboski instituted an internal process to ensure the “proper separation between the branches of government,” and so that she could evaluate Assembly members’ requests and determine how to best allocate her staff’s time “to ensure the allocation of staff time aligns with the core missions and services of each municipal department, and to ensure that the Administration is responsive to Assembly member requests for information,.”
Demboski said Assembly members, the Clerk, Assembly aides, and Assembly counsel may directly contact municipal department directors for inquiries regarding public, published information, and clarification on routine matters. All responses from municipal staff to the Assembly, the Clerk, an aide, and Assembly counsel must also include a summary of the communication to the Municipal Manager. Questions requiring extensive time to research and prepare responses will require approval of the Municipal Manager; when these requests are received by staff, they should be forwarded to the Municipal Manager for review and direction.
Demboski’s memo was obtained with a public records request.
Demboski, who was once an Assemblywoman representing Eagle River, further said that requests for information from unpublished policy, or policy interpretation (including policy regarding municipal budget development) must be submitted to the Mayor’s office for her to review.
The new rule comes after Dunbar began asking for draft documents from Police Chief Ken McCoy and from Director of Maintenance and Operations Saxton Shearer.
In a letter to McCoy on Aug. 20, also obtained by public records request, Dunbar wrote,
I heard from a reporter yesterday that you had been asked by the mayor to submit proposals for a potential 5% cut to your budget. Could you please send to me what that proposal looks like? I am curious what a 5% cut would entail for the Police Department.
On Aug. 25, Dunbar had not gotten an answer, so he persisted, writing to Chief McCoy:
Just pinging this. If there was any presentation or proposal prepared for those cuts, I’d appreciate the chance to see it.– Forrest Dunbar, Aug. 25, 2021
Police Chief McCoy responded the same day and directed Dunbar to check with the city manager:
Good afternoon Forrest,
I appreciate your interest and support of public safety.
As you are aware all municipal departments, including APD, were asked to submit a 5% budget reduction proposal to the administration. My team and I drafted the proposal and presented it to the administration last week. If you would like to receive a copy of the proposal that request must be submitted to Municipal Manager Demboski.
Again, thank you for your support.
Dunbar continued to try to get the internal budget document, writing then to City Manager Demboski:
Thank you, Chief.
Ms. Demboski, I would like to request a copy of that proposal. I am including our budget analyst, Ms. Camacho, on this thread as well.
Demboski was having none of it. On Aug. 30, she wrote to Dunbar and told him no:
Assembly Member Dunbar,
The information you are requesting is deliberative and executive privilege applies in this situation. The Administration will not be waiving the privilege extended to the deliberative process.
Thank you for the question and for your understanding.
At the same time, Dunbar was trying to get internal documents on the municipal bonds, and asked Saxton Shearer, director of Maintenance and Operations, for his list of projects he did not plan to pursue in the coming budget cycle:
I noticed a very large drop in the proposed bond amount for Maintenance and Operations in 2022 in the 120 day memo the Assembly received last week. On the 2021 Capital Plan, no such drop was anticipated in 2022. Can you let me know which projects are no longer going to be funded by the bond, and why? Are they going to be deferred, or is there going to be another funding source (like federal funds, which are listed for PM&E projects)?
That memo from Dunbar was responded to by Demboski, who told him the budget documents are still of a deliberative nature and were not something that he, as an Assemblyman, was going to be able to get.
Assembly Member Dunbar,
Thank you for the questions. The information in the 120 day report is a preliminary status of the budget proposal and decisions are still being finalized. Since this is still very much in the policy development phase, the additional information you are seeking is deliberative and executive privilege applies in this situation. The Administration will not be waiving the privilege extended to the deliberative process. Please direct policy questions to me in the future; that will give me the opportunity to determine if the information you are seeking is appropriate to be transmitted to the legislative branch of government at the time of the request, and I will be able to respond to you more quickly.
We truly appreciate your questions and look forward to having these conversations once the budget and bond proposals are finalized. Thank you for your understanding.